The Oatmeal Problem

Our entire crew gets breakfast from the same spot. A cavernous hall filled with everything you could ever want. It is quite literally a Greek diner menu come to life in take-out form. 47 different types of omelets? Check. Full sushi bar? Yes. Fresh juice station? Sure. You want them to whip you up a veal parmigiana hero? They got you covered. I often wonder as I wait for my Western with a side of bacon what it must take to operate a place that cranks out this number of offerings 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The back room has to either be chaos or a finely tuned machine of fryers, grill tops, wood ovens, blenders and rice cookers. Maybe, one day, they’ll let me back there to check it out.

One of our favorite features in this magical emporium is the self-serve oatmeal bar. You can choose from not one, not two but four different types of oatmeal (cooked in water, whole milk, coconut milk or almond milk). Then you can add in no less than 15 different toppings including fresh fruit, raisins, nuts, granola, trail mix, and coconut flakes. Mix and match any and all of it in any way you see fit.

And we aren’t the only ones. The oatmeal bar is always one of the busier areas as people sprinkle just the right amount of cinnamon over their hot breakfast cereal.

But, some days, things go wrong at the oatmeal bar. From afar I can see people lifting the lids on the various steaming pots only to see them close them one by one, put their containers back on the shelf and walk away while shaking their heads. And on closer inspection it becomes very clear what is wrong – in an act of either poor chemistry or desire to save a few pennies all the oatmeals are too watery. And I don’t care what type of toppings you lay on there, no one wants watery oatmeal. So the oatmeal bar sits vacant as people move on to grab a stack of strawberry cream cheese-stuffed French toast or a flat bread with lox and capers and cream cheese or load up on a Greek yogurt parfait. Or, most often, walk out the door with nothing at all.

Watered Down Training

 I truly hope that the watery oatmeal is a result of an overly zealous sous chef and not them trying to save, I don’t know, the fifty cents worth of oats it might take to get the pot back up to an acceptable consistency. But, who knows? When you run an operation this massive and seemingly costly maybe you try to save wherever you can.

As much as I’d like to wax on about the proper ratio of oats to liquid in order to produce a spot-on vat of oatmeal, you may not be surprised that every time I see the hungry masses turn away from those steamy, watery pots I can’t help but think about how people make the same mistake in training. Namely, they water down their training so much that it no longer produces results. And it doesn’t matter how many delicious toppings your shovel on there. If the foundation – the oatmeal – isn’t made the right way, the entire breakfast is a failure.

The Pros And Cons of Training Variation

Let’s start with my definition of watered down training. To me, watering down your training is adding on unnecessary layers of variety and complexity in order to (mistakenly) drive results or in an effort to make training more psychologically stimulating.

On the surface this doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Let’s say you hit a plateau in your back squat. Adding box squats or bands or chains to the bar or any other variation could help you bust through that plateau. And if you are mentally burnt out from repeating the same movements over and over again maybe tweaking the exercises will provide the change of pace your body and mind needs.

I don’t disagree. But the biggest issue is that most trainees start layering on too much complexity too soon. They need mental breaks too often. If you water down the oatmeal twice per year no one blinks. Water it down 3 days a week and people start getting their breakfast elsewhere.

Obviously your workouts should not be exactly the same day in and day out. But there is a lot of value in practicing the same movements the same way for long stretches of time. You become more efficient the more ingrained a movement pattern becomes. And if you practice something the same way for long enough even the slightest variations will change (and usually degrade) performance.

Take someone who is brand new to playing basketball. If you put them on the free throw line or 3 inches behind the free throw line they’ll hardly realize the difference. Now take a professional basketball player who has shot tens of thousands of free throws. He’s so in tune with the movement that if you move him back half an inch he’s going to feel it. Also, as you might imagine, the pro is going to be much better at shooting free throws than the noob. And this is what it takes to get great at any type of movement pattern – practice it the same, correct way for very long stretches of time.

So, how then do you continue to progress training while maintaining the same exercises done the same way? In my view, quite simply. When it is time to alter certain factors of training rather than layering on some Bosu-ball, reverse band variation, simply change the reps, sets and intensity of the movement pattern you are trying to perfect.

I cannot overstate how the learned efficiency of a movement pattern done to the point of it becoming automatic will free you up to get stronger or build more capacity in that  pattern rather than having to learn variations or tweaks of those movements.

Is there a time to utilize variation to your benefit? Certainly. If you have already mastered a specific movement to the point where you are lifting competitive weights, variation can help you recruit different muscles or motor units than can benefit you when you return to the competition version of the lift. If you have an injury or movement restriction, partial range of motion variations can allow you to continue training the movement without furthering your issues. Finally, if you truly have been training the squat for years and years a new stimulus may be good for your brain. But, particularly if you are at a high level, don’t stay away too long. Because while strength qualities don’t necessarily decay that quickly, the skill of efficiency will depart faster than Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” will get drunk 40-somethings out on the dance floor. So don’t spend too much time away from your core lifts.

On a recent soupy oatmeal day I took a cue from my fellow disgruntled breakfast goers and took a tour of the other options. I landed on a “homemade” banana walnut muffin which I must admit was freakin’ delicious. But I was right back at that oatmeal bar the next day. Cause while it may not be as tasty as acceptable breakfast cake (which, let’s face it, is all a muffin is) in the long term the oatmeal is going to keep me on track towards my goals.

And that’s what I’m in this whole damn thing for in the first place.